Hearts face a decisive Betfred Cup group tie against Inverness Caledonian Thistle on Sunday after a comfortable 5-0 win against ten-man Cowdenbeath. Steven MacLean, Uche Ikpeazu, Peter Haring, Steven Naismith and Michael Smith claimed the goals after the visitors had Martin Scott sent off in the first half.
The result – allied to Inverness beating Raith Rovers – ensures the Edinburgh club can still win Group C despite being deducted two points for using an ineligible player. John Robertson’s side travel to the Capital on Sunday as group leaders knowing their opponents can usurp them on goal difference with victory.
Hearts were deducted two points and fined £10,000 – £8000 of which is suspended – 24 hours before kick-off against League Two Cowdenbeath. That was punishment for fielding Andy Irving against Cove Rangers last week when he wasn’t properly registered. Their total in the section was therefore reduced from five points to three.
For the first game on Tynecastle Park’s new hybrid pitch, the Hearts manager Craig Levein made four changes to his team from Saturday’s disappointing 1-1 draw with Raith Rovers. Irving started for the first time since the registration error and the Australian Ben Garuccio made his maiden competitive appearance. Callumn Morrison and MacLean were also restored.
Cowdenbeath arrived in Edinburgh joint top of the group on six points alongside Inverness. The Fife club set up with a conservative 4-5-1 system designed to help them supplement that tally by stifling Hearts’ threat. Manager Gary Bollan would have been encouraged seeing his side tackle hard and deny their opponents space, although there was no question the hosts enjoyed the stronger opening to the match.
Kyle Lafferty shrugged off a pre-match back complaint to take his place in Levein’s starting line-up. He had an early effort at goal, as did captain Christophe Berra, midfielder Irving and Saturday’s goalscorer Smith. The Cowdenbeath goalkeeper David McGurn wasn’t troubled, however.
Teenager Morrison was again dangerous at right wing-back. He and fellow youngsters Aidan Keena and Anthony McDonald changed the tempo against Raith after coming on as substitutes, and Morrison’s rampant runs down the flank exposed Cowdenbeath time and again. Levein changed formation before the half-hour mark to propel Morrison further forward on top of the visiting left-back, Jason Talbot.
Events swung in Hearts’ favour on 31 minutes with Scott’s dismissal. He went for a 50-50 challenge with Berra near the halfway line and caught the Scotland internationalist late. Both men rolled on the turf and referee Barry Cook quickly arrived to produce a red card for Scott – presumably for serious foul play.
Cowdenbeath’s fortunes then worsened when midfielder David Cox was forced off with blood pouring from his head. He had been caught by Morrison’s studs while trying to ride a challenge. Hearts also made a change when Anthony McDonald replaced Irving.
McGurn made an important save from Smith at the back post. Then came an even better reaction stop to repel Peter Haring’s header. Hearts were increasing the pace and creating opportunities at will whenever they attacked but the final penetration eluded them in the first half.
Being too cavalier wasn’t a great idea, underlined by the Fifers’ counter-attack two minutes from the interval. Substitute Jordyn Sheerin fed Kyle Miller in space to his left, but his first-time right-footed attempt was held comfortably by Zdenek Zlamal in the home goal.
Within four minutes of the restart, the deadlock was broken. Garuccio pressed forward to use his excellent delivery from the left and aimed a fine ball into the six-yard area. MacLean was lurking and threw himself at the cross, appearing to connect with his chest. It was sufficient to guide the ball away from McGurn and into the far corner of the net.
Hearts were now eager to increase their advantage with goal difference in their minds and Cowdenbeath’s part-time players tiring. The potential for a Sunday shoot-out with Inverness was looming and a few more strikes would help their cause. From MacLean’s intelligent through ball, Naismith took a touch but his shot on the turn was held by McGurn. The floodgates were buckling, though, and soon opened up.
Substitute Ikpeazu produced the killer touch needed on 64 minutes. He took possession near the edge of the Cowdenbeath penalty area with his back to goal, touched the ball clear of his marker and dispatched a thumping left-footed shot from 20 yards into the bottom corner. He looked suitably delighted with his first competitive Hearts goal, too.
Cowdenbeath centre-backs Jamie Pyper and David Marsh took exception to the problems Ikpeazu was causing and left a couple of late challenges on the hulking Englishman. The hostility didn’t deter him despite being booked along with Marsh for niggling off the ball.
The third goal arrived from a textbook corner kick. McDonald’s curling delivery was met by the towering head of Haring, who glanced it high into the net for the Austrian’s first competitive goal in Scotland. Two minutes later, McDonald was fouled inside the box and Naismith confidently converted the resultant penalty kick to make it 4-0.
Then came the fifth from Smith, a low strike on the angle following substitute Jake Mulraney’s cutback. After scoring his first ever Hearts goal at the weekend, the Northern Irishman now had two in two games. That completed an efficient second half and gave those in maroon an opportunity they will relish after a difficult week – the chance to finish group winners with one more victory.
Hearts (3-4-1-2): Zlamal; M Smith, Souttar, Berra; Morrison, Haring, Irving (McDonald 35)(Mulraney 78), Garuccio; Naismith; Lafferty (Ikpeazu 55), MacLean. Unused subs: Doyle, Hughes, Lee, Keena.
Cowdenbeath (4-5-1): McGurn; Mullen, Pyper, Marsh, Talbot; Cox (Sheerin 36)(Swan 83), Buchanan, Miller, Malcolm, Smith (Renton 58); Scott. Unused subs: Goodfellow, Scullion, Gilfillan, Muirhead.
Referee: B Cook